Terms and Types: Grass-fed Cattle Operations

Much of the terminology you encounter when talking about grass-fed beef production is the same for conventional beef production. Whether you are a new or aspiring grass-fed producer or a consumer looking to learn more, you are bound to encounter these four most basic terms and four common cattle operations:


4 Terms

1.     Beef: a term used to categorize any cut of meat from cattle. Cattle weigh 1,000 to 1,200 pounds when they are processed for beef, but only yield about 400 – 500 pounds of meat when butchered.

2.     Finishing: The finishing process (kind of like a fattening process) occurs after the animal has reached a physically mature stage (usually when the animal is 15-18 months old and weighs about 500 pounds). During the finishing process, the animals put on exterior (fat cover) and intramuscular fat (marbling).   A “finished” animal weighs 1,000 to 2,000 pounds, and are then taken to be processed for meat. A lot of the meat flavor and tenderness is related to the fat content of the beef. “Finishing” takes about 18-20 months for conventional, 24-36 months for grass-fed.

3.     Grass-fed: animals that consume only grass and forage after weaning. The diet may include forage consisting of grass, forbs (legumes, brassica), cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state. Mineral licks and vitamin supplementation is allowed. Animals are not fed grain or grain byproducts and do have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. No hormones or anti-biotics are given to the animal.

4.     Conventional: animals may be grazed or may be fed a grain diet after weaning. They are typically finished on grain and are primarily fed a corn-based diet with some mineral supplements. Anti-biotics and hormones may be used to treat disease or to spur growth.  During their life they may or may not have access to open pasture and are typically spend a significant portion of their life in a feed-lot.


4 Operations

1.     A cow-calf operation maintains a breeding herd of cows, young females (heifers) and bulls. Steer calves and host heifer calves are sold, but some are usually selected to enter the breed herd. Calves are sold after weaning or kept for a forage production season (as a stocker) and are then sold to a feedlot for finishing.


2.     Seedstock production is a specialized cow-calf operation that produces purebred or registered cattle. The goal of seedstock production is to improve the genetics of a breed that will benefit the entire beef industry. Improvements are documented through extensive records that are maintained by individual ranchers and breed organizations. Animals are sold as bulls and replacement females to other seedstock producers or cow-calf producers.

3.     Stocker operations grow steer or heifer calves or yearlings on rangeland/grass/forage. They are usually purchased after weaning and are wintered on low quality feed (or winter pasture, if grass finishing is the goal). Stocker cattle are normally marketed and sold at sale barns to feedlots at the end of the grazing season.

4. Feedlots area  common industry practice. They have a high stock density (large number of cattle in a relatively small area) and feed animals feed-grains and by-products. In this operation, animals put on weight quickly and finished animals from this system can be sold at 18 - 24 months and processed for meat.